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Jackson approves controversial affordable housing project near local fairgrounds

Courtesy of the "Save the Rodeo Grounds" campaign.

The Jackson Town Council has approved a new affordable housing development. That’s a pretty common story in Northwest Wyoming – until you dig a little deeper. Wyoming Public Media’s Will Walkey talked with Kyle Mackie, News Director of Jackson Hole Community Radio, about how one building has stirred up controversy and misinformation in Teton County.

Will Walkey: Can you first tell us a little bit about why this affordable housing development is important and what the town council was trying to accomplish here?

Kyle Mackie: Yeah, so anyone who has spent any amount of time in Jackson, probably going back decades but especially in the last few years, knows that Jackson is facing a real crisis and a lack of affordable housing. This is a serious issue here. And especially for the lowest income workers, it is very difficult to, A, find housing and then, B, find housing you can afford, right?

So this plan is for a 48-unit affordable housing project that would be on one acre of town-owned land, and it would be for the lowest income workers. So, people earning less than $52,000 for one person–for an individual–and less than, like, $66,000 for a family of three. So these are folks who are especially squeezed in the local real estate market.

One thing I hear a lot is folks saying that, you know, for any new affordable housing project, you know, “It's just going to bring more people here, like, who is this going to serve? We're gonna have more people coming to the area.” But there's actually really strong data showing that people who are already here and living here need housing now.

WW: Okay, so it's 48 units. Where is it going? And what is it replacing?

KM: The location of this project is what's become controversial. I mentioned it's on town-owned land. This is one acre of town-owned land that is across from the very famous rodeo and fairgrounds right in downtown Jackson. And what was on this acre is the Teton County Fair’s exhibition hall. That building was in disrepair and is actually being replaced after this year. So now that this year’s fair is over, the building is actually being demolished. And there's a new replacement community center that's replacing that exhibit hall. And the town has said, you know, “We ran on affordable housing, and, you know, we support this affordable housing project that's gonna go on town owned land.”

Some folks still conceive the whole area to be the historic fairgrounds and don't want to see even just one acre, you know, given up, in their opinion, to a housing project. They see this, you know, as a historic plot that has been the fairgrounds and they want to keep it the fairgrounds.

WW: Okay, so now to the controversy. You have a political action committee that's formed in opposition to this development. They're putting ads in the paper. They are threatening a lawsuit. What are they so upset about? And what has the opposition looked like to you on the ground?

KM: Right, this has turned into a really heated political and cultural issue in Jackson. You have two groups raising the public profile of this issue, I would say, through ads. Like, through mailers. Stickers. I see stickers around town. Really operating under this brand of “Save the rodeo grounds.” And even using that language implies that it needs to be saved from something.

And many local elected officials have taken issue with that and how this conversation is being framed because they say, “We're not trying to get rid of the fairgrounds. We're not trying to get rid of the rodeo.” In fact, the town council actually recently extended the lease for the rodeo and fairgrounds through the end of 2030. And I believe that's about the longest lease that's ever been in place for the fairgrounds and the rodeo grounds.

However, opponents of this housing project on the one acre in question, say, “You know, we can't trust you, this is just the first cut of what is going to be a series of cuts and eventually we're going to have no fairgrounds left.”

At the same time, it's made more complicated because the Teton County Fair Board actually does indeed want to relocate the fair, mostly because it's such a small space. Like, there's no horse warm-up area, for example, and they're not able to do all of the activities that they would like to do for, you know, a standard fair and rodeo. And so actually going back 20 years, the Fair Board has been requesting tax monies to purchase a larger amount of land out of town.

And actually many housing advocates here in town, they have also kind of seized on this and said, you know, “Yes, like, we can make this a win-win. Let's use the town-owned land in town for housing for workers who desperately need it and relocate the fairgrounds out of town to a larger and more modern facility where we can have a better fair and a better rodeo.”

WW: So finally, at the end of the day, the Jackson Town Council is trying to create a dent in this housing problem that you just mentioned. And the story has kind of been turned into something else. It's become a story about small town politics and misinformation. What do you think that this story in this controversy in general has said about government communication and the media?

KM: Yeah, it stirred up a lot of emotion. And I think that this is a local example of the difficulties we are seeing across the country of, how do we maybe respectfully disagree? And how do we also agree on a set of facts?

You are hearing from many town council members, for example, [who] said at a recent public meeting that got very emotional. Very heated. There was a lot of anger in the room. You know, not necessarily name calling, but allegations of town council members being corrupt or this process for the project being corrupt and threats of lawsuits. And you did hear two council members, in particular, really push back and say, “Hey, I don't recognize this tenor of my town.” Like this disrespect that has come out around this issue is very upsetting to some people.

And I do think the town council is very upset that this one acre near the fairgrounds or part of the historic fairgrounds–however you would like to characterize it–has become kind of a stand-in and it's been framed as the future of the entire fairgrounds, which is not the issue at stake here. It's really a local example of how difficult it is these days to find common ground on any kind of controversial topic.

Will Walkey is a contributing journalist and former reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.

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